Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2017

Peak: Reinventing Middle Age, by Patricia and Don Edgar

When I was young, people in their sixties were old.  In fact, many of The Ex’s family died of cancer or heart disease when I was in my twenties and they were in their fifties, long before they could retire or take up the Old Age Pension as it was then known.  My English grandparents had what was called a good innings, my grandfather dying aged 72 and my grandmother aged 80, but they had both seemed old when we saw them for the last time eighteen years before, when we left England.  But things have changed.  Although indigenous health is still a matter of national shame,  there have been – in the course of my lifetime – such remarkable improvements in health care for most Australians that old is now redefined to mean something much later than sixty or seventy.  This increase in longevity means that the concept of middle age needs to be redefined too.

Both in their eighties and living active, satisfying lives, husband-and-wife authors Patricia Edgar and Don Edgar argue in Peak, Reinventing Middle Age that it’s not just a matter of semantics.  They say that this shift in demographics has created a challenge for policy makers; for welfare and taxation regimes; and for attitudes to education and employment.  They suggest that increased longevity means that all of us as individuals need to rethink our responsibility for looking after ourselves beyond our fifties and sixties.  We need to rejig our ideas about our contributions to society, our needs and our expectations because – apart from anything else, if we don’t, we may outlive our financial resources.  But the Edgars reject the idea that an older Australia means a dependency problem, and they also reject the prevalent media preoccupation with inter-generational conflict.  (The argument, for example, that youth unemployment is exacerbated by older people ‘hanging onto’ their jobs, or that housing affordability could be improved if the oldies all downsized or got out of the capital cities with a sea- or a tree-change).  They make a compelling case for the need to start a national conversation about these issues of middle age as a matter of urgency.

In general it’s a very optimistic book, using recent research to explore opportunities and blockers, and the mini biographies that form the second part of the book show that flexibility in the later years can be the key to embracing a satisfying lifestyle.  The authors are, however, IMO a bit too  evangelical about the virtues of part-time work.  My experience, admittedly only in a primary school workplace, is that it’s not an age issue: adjusting for part-time workers can be a major pain for everybody else.  To keep them informed and to ensure that they had fair opportunities for decision-making and professional development always involved extra work: I couldn’t run one workshop to teach three of them something new or get their input on a issue, because they were all at work on different days and were not available after school.  They didn’t check their email every day – why should they, if they were not being paid to be at work? – but it meant that information sharing and collaborative decision-making was always more laborious for the rest of us.  We had to be flexible about a whole range of issues, but they did not.   And part-time work is not a panacea for the ageing worker either: it didn’t take me long to work out (under two different principalships) that part-time for senior staff meant retaining all the stressful responsibilities and the punishing deadlines, while being paid for fewer days work in which to achieve them.

These issues aside, the Edgars paint an encouraging picture of satisfying middle age:

Research into longevity shows clearly that those who age successfully have enjoyed fulfilling lives.  They have been adventurers and risk-takers.  They had had their share of struggle; most have physical health issues which they manage while continuing a purposeful life; and they have restructured their lives as circumstances changed, showing resilience in dealing with hardship.  A certain element of good luck is involved in living a long life without accident or disease, but some aspects of ageing well are negotiable.  The sooner we pay attention to them the better the outcome.

The successful middle-aged are generally self-motivated and community-minded, manage their routines and their needs independently, and, although lonely from time to time, most are not isolated.  They are not consumed by regrets and have learned to live day by day, remaining interested and interesting.  Throughout their lives they have felt loved and worthwhile.  (p.92)

As a side-issue (not tackled in the book) – purposeful living in middle age can stave off dementia in old age.  After last year completing an Understanding Dementia MOOC so that I could better care for my father, I have just completed a MOOC (also run by the Wicking Centre at the University of Tasmania) about Preventing Dementia.  I learned first of all that many people are really anxious about getting dementia in their old age, and was pleased to find from the ANU risk assessment test that my risk is low.  More importantly I learned that research shows that you can forget all those silly quick fix stories in the media, there are seven clearly identified risk factors which can be modified by changes in behaviour.   These risk factors are

  • having diabetes
  • smoking
  • obesity in middle age
  • midlife hypertension
  • physical inactivity
  • having depression
  • low levels of education

So as you can see, improved brain health in old age results from healthy behaviours, and stimulating the brain through social interaction and intellectual stimulation (e.g. learning languages, reading books and writing blog posts!) And it’s never too late to change, they say:)

Peak has also been reviewed at The Reader, The Booksellers New Zealand blog (a blog BTW well worth following for anyone interested in KiwiLit).

Authors: Patricia and Don Edgar
Title: Peak: Reinventing Middle Age
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925355963
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Peak: Reinventing Middle Age and the Text website where you can also buy it as an eBook.


Responses

  1. Interesting post. You may be the other side of the world from me, Lisa, but this rings very loud bells here in the UK where the issue of longevity in terms of who will pay for care has been a hot potato in the preamble to the general election.

    • Hmm, yes, the answer to who pays here is… the middle class. There is a big push to get people to age at home, supposedly with an army of services to support them, but in reality it only works up to a point, and frail, vulnerable people have to be willing to tolerate an ever-changing roll-call of underpaid service providers. In my experience they prefer to over-rely on friends and family, and in this book Peak the authors make the point that the sandwich generation i.e. the Baby Boomers are often still supporting their adult children while also having to provide care for their ageing parents. In my case they lived interstate, and travelling up there every school holidays made a considerable dent in my retirement savings.
      Once an aged care home is needed, it’s taxpayer funded depending on means, but the residence charges an accommodation deposit. These are astronomical. My father’s place charged $450,000 for a room, a sum which was (here in Melbourne) about half the cost of a house in that suburb. Closer in to the city, these deposits can go up to almost a million dollars. If you can’t pay it, or can’t pay all of it, they charge interest on it. So for a married couple where the house can’t be sold to raise the deposit because one of them is still living in it, the interest on the unpaid deposit plus the care fees, plus the so-called ‘optional’ ‘additional services fee’ (which pays for activities) can eat up savings and superannuation pensions very quickly indeed. It’s not a problem for the rich, and it’s not a problem for the poor, but it is a scary prospect for the middle class!

      • Those costs do sound very high. It’s been slowly coming to a head here as the NHS is put under increasing strain by the number of patients who are fit to be discharged but have to be kept in hospital as there is insufficient care for them. Care is provided by the local authorities, for those unable to pay for it themselves, whose own budgets have been slashed as a result of post- financial crisis austerity measures. We need a proper insurance system into which everyone pays. The problem is that many believe that’s what they’ve been doing through the National Insurance portion of their tax bill, seeing it as a way of saving for the future. It isn’t. This is a problem all developed countries need to find a way to deal with.

        • Well, at the end of the day it’s a problem for the whole of society, but not all of society pays its share. The difficulty in recent years is that those most able to contribute to national taxation, don’t. The wealthy do not pay their share of taxes, squeezing the middle class who end up having to fund the welfare bill and everything else and of course they get fed up and demand lower taxes.

          • I agree. We have a hugely complicated tax system here full of loopholes, and a great deal of money to be made from finding them.

  2. Working very hard to stay middle-aged (at 66) and self-supporting. Not looking forward to old age at all, when my meagre super runs out. But I should be able to work into my 70s then maybe run a small shop into my eighties. After that? Shoot me.

    • Would that be a bookshop?

      • Books and tea. It’s my excuse for buying as many second hand books as I can find cheap. And tea, so that ex Mrs Legend will come in on the venture and make cakes

        • Sounds lovely. Sounds fun!


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